More on Bible Translations and Undermining the Authority of the Original

February 5, 2009

I’ve been enjoying participating in an interesting exchange in the comments section of my post on the Freeware Bible. Since my interlocutor has been saying very smart things, I figured I’d respond in another post, in case anyone else might be interested.

We were discussing the idea of an original text being what I called “flexible,” making possible any number of different translations for each text that could be deemed “right” and even “faithful.” Commenter rukednous suggests that “the Bible is such an extreme case that a lot of principles for translation and literature that you could derive from it don’t seem to apply anywhere else,” and that it is people’s intense interest in the text — word by word — that makes it flexible. I think it could be precisely because the Bible has been translated so many times that we are able to see possibilities for translation that might not have been so apparent otherwise — in other words, that those apparently unique characteristics are absolutely applicable in other circumstances but never get the chance to play out in a standard-issue relationship between an original and its translation — or, if it’s lucky, its translations.

It’s true that the Bible’s singular role as a religious text means that the words themselves become paramount. Still, I would argue that it’s not strong commitment to the Bible’s text that makes it “flexible,” but that that commitment leads to multiple translations, which itself highlights that flexibility and makes it visible. Another text that has been quite visibly flexible is Dante’s Divine Comedy (a religious text in its own way, as well, I suppose, but really more a sacred text for world literature than for any other system of values or beliefs!), which has undergone more than 100 at least partial translations into English alone. (Listen to Via, Caroline Bergvall’s amazing reading of dozens of translations of the Inferno‘s first few lines, at UbuWeb.) Translating Dante seems to have become a rite of passage for any English-language poet worth his or her salt.

Of course, most original texts will never see that multiplicity of possibilities fulfilled in a multiplicity of translations. But I love rukednous’s idea of discussing translation in terms of “difficulties . . . rather than victories,” since the latter falls into the trap of prescribing one right answer, shutting the door on other possibilities. It’s a hard thing, when you’ve done battle with a recalcitrant original, not to declare some sort of victory when a solution is finally wrestled into place, but the insidious thing about originals is that they kind of become sacred texts of their own, immutable and incontestable. (I love the legend about the 72 identical translations of the Septuagint for a mythical version of this.) Declaring victory, I feel, merely reinforces the original in a position of authority, from which all translations — or at least translations of human, rather than divine, texts — with their inevitable deviations in sound and sense from the original, must be cast into doubt and judged inadequate.



One Response to “More on Bible Translations and Undermining the Authority of the Original”

  1. […] While I prefer to think in terms not of losses but of emphases, I recognize that there may be no really meaningful distinction. Still, for more on the topic of multiple translations, see an earlier post here. […]

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